My wife read it, and she was genuinely upset.
“Why did you post that?” she asked. “It makes Malloy sound mean. It makes Witherspoon seem like the victim.”
I was surprised by her reaction.
“You didn’t put in the part that explains why Malloy punched him,” she added. “Witherspoon insulted Malloy’s mother. That’s not in the post.”
I hadn’t even considered that. I was simply trying to post an excerpt that wasn’t too long, but my wife is, of course, right. Without the context that comes later, the scene portrays Malloy rather harshly.
As a writer, I found it both amazing and gratifying that my wife was defending one of my fictional characters. Granted, she’s my most loyal reader, but I’m still amazed that she identified with Malloy so much that she worried how blog readers might feel about him based on that one scene.
That scene, by the way, was originally the opening for the entire book. I later added the preface and another chapter ahead of it because I felt the characters needed to be developed a bit more before we got to that point of conflict.
Anyway, in Malloy’s defense, here’s another excerpt, from later in the same chapter, that provides more context:
The battle had intensified as more homes were built in the subdivision, and each owner seemed to want — or to think they deserved — a pool. It was the stupid pond, though, that stuck in Malloy’s craw. For all Witherspoon’s self-proclaimed environmentalism, he didn’t seem to appreciate the water situation. It was as if they thought all their statistics and Internet-gathered data meant more than local knowledge. Malloy had tried to explain the interaction between limestone and low water levels and what would happen when the aquifer dropped below a certain point.
Around Conquistador, people his parents’ age still talked about the drought in the early Fifties, when the water smelled like sulfur. The aquifer could still hold plenty of water, but once the homies drew the water table down, nobody would want to drink it or swim in it or smell it in their precious little pond. They were coming off of two years of drought and possibly facing a third. Malloy hadn’t seen it this dry in years, and the old-timers were talking about the Fifties again half a decade later.
Ranchers, like farmers, don’t forget droughts. It was that simple. A drought was a blatant reminder of how little control a cowboy has over his own livelihood. If there’s one thing the Big Empty teaches you quickly, it’s that you don’t make the same mistake twice. When it came to the weather, the land, or the livestock, Malloy had learned to listen to the elders. Witherspoon’s ears were clogged with arrogance, and Malloy had run out of patience. Tonight, he’d allowed the months of exasperation to get the best of him. Still, Witherspoon had that pop coming, and more.
As a representative of the town’s original—and biggest—employer, the Conquistador Ranch, he needed to work with Witherspoon. Instead, the cowboy in him had won out. He felt torn between his job and his livelihood, two things that had always seemed the same until the first wood frames of Rolling Ranch Estates started appearing on the horizon.
Witherspoon didn’t understand that, of course. He couldn’t understand it. He couldn’t understand Malloy’s frustration, his growing feeling of obsolescence. Malloy had felt like the homie was baiting him. The conversation replayed itself in Malloy’s mind.
“I think we all understand the need for water,” Witherspoon said, in a tone so condescending it immediately reminded Malloy of the first ranch supervisor he’d worked for in Kansas.
“If you understood it, you’d turn off that damn fountain,” Malloy had fired back.
“Mr. Malloy, the people here are trying to build homes. We want to build a community. We moved here to get away from the city, the crime. We want our community to be safe and attractive, and our lake is a big part of that.”
“Well, first of all, your ‘lake’ isn’t much bigger than a stock tank, and secondly, some of us make our livings out here, and a big part of that depends on water. On a hot day, a cow can drink twenty-five gallons of water, and we’ve got about twelve thousand of them out there.”
Both men had pushed to their feet, staring across the table while the ten or so other board members for the Rolling Ranch Estates Homeowners Association stared in silence.
“Mr. Malloy, we all know how ranchers have misused this land for more than a century. You overgrazed it, you exploited it, and now you want us to feel sorry for you.”
“This doesn’t have anything to do with grazing practices. It’s got to do with the fact that pumping water out of the ground for your little show pond out there, just so it can evaporate, is a huge waste. And that doesn’t count all the water you’ll need for your swimming pools and lawn sprinklers and God knows what else. If this keeps up, none of us will have enough water to get through the summer.”
Malloy flung down the preliminary statistics he’d gotten from the county water district. It wasn’t just the lake, of course, the whole subdivision was putting a drain on the water table. The number of houses grew with the developers’ ambitions, and now they felt a golf course was a necessity because of the “high caliber” of homeowner they planned to attract. And that was before the factory began production and sopped up hundreds of millions more gallons a year. Malloy never knew computer chips needed so much water–-ten times as much as cows.
The lake, though, seemed to make a blatant mockery of it all. It was as if the homies had just moved in and decided to help themselves to all the resources. The lake hadn’t been included in the original plans for the subdivision. It had been slipped in later, an “aesthetic enhancement” the developer had called it.
“There is plenty of water. I’ve studied it myself. These people,” Witherspoon said, motioning to the other board members, “will tell you no one is more concerned about environmental issues than I. But I hardly think one lake is going to suck up all the water.”
“I don’t know how much studying you’ve done of what, but this isn’t some Ivy League class project. Have you considered the evaporation rate for that fountain? We’re looking at a third straight year of drought. I’ve lived here all my life. I can remember my mama not washing clothes so we’d have water for the cows. This isn’t something you want to mess with.”
By now they were leaning across the table, noses inches apart. Everyone else in the room was frozen. Then he said it. Witherspoon crossed the line.
“Your ‘mama’s’ bad hygiene doesn’t have anything to do with us.” He bobbed his head derisively to accent the word “mama.”
The fist flew before Malloy knew he’d let it go. Or at least that’s what he told himself. Truth is, he’d never expected Witherspoon to just stand there and take it. Anyone in Conquistador who’d ever dared to say something like that would have thrown up their guard before they finished talking.From The Big Empty, copyright 2021 by Loren C. Steffy. Stoney Creek Publishing Group LLC.
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